Upcoming Webinar: Gun Violence, Mental Illness and Firearms

Jan 24, 2012, 3:36 PM, Posted by NewPublicHealth

Swanson Jeffrey Swanson, Duke University School of Medicine

The Public Health Law Research Program as well as the American Society of Law Medicine and Ethics, the Network for Public Health Law and the Public Health Law Association and will be hosting a webinar on Thursday, January 26 at one p.m., looking at laws related to mental illness and firearms. The webinar will focus on what is known about the contribution of mental illness to violence and will consider the implications of research literature for law and policy that seek to limit firearms access for people with mental disorders who may pose a danger to themselves or others. The presentation will discuss research findings on whether current federal and state firearms restrictions reduce gun violence, and will lay out an agenda for needed future research.

>>UPDATE: Check out the recording of Thursday's webinar on the Network for Public Health Law website, here.

NewPublicHealth spoke with Jeffrey Swanson, PhD, Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Duke University School of Medicine, and a presenter for the webinar.

NewPublicHealth: What’s the scope of the problem?

Jeffrey Swanson: Firearm violence is a major public health problem in the U.S. More than 300,000 people died from gunshot injuries from 1998 to 2007—a death toll five times greater than the number of U.S. military casualties in the Vietnam War. Very public acts of gun violence by persons with mental illness—such as the mass shootings at Virginia Tech in 2007 and in Tucson in 2011—suggest that the current patchwork of state and federal firearms laws may be ineffective at protecting the public from dangerous individuals. But, in fact, research shows that the large majority of people with mental illness are not violent, and that most violent acts are not caused by mental illness.

Two consequences can result from the varying state laws—mentally ill people can be kept from their constitutional right to own a firearm, and some laws can put firearms into the hands of mentally ill people who may use them not to kill others, but to commit suicide.

NPH: What’s the status of your research on the topic?

Jeffrey Swanson: We’re right in the middle of our project. We don’t have new results yet. This is a multi-state project and we’re in the middle of acquiring data from mental health and criminal justice systems, and health departments and putting this all together.

NPH: What’s the current state of law on the issue?

Jeffrey Swanson: Owning a firearm is a constitutionally protected right and the Supreme Court in recent decisions has upheld that. We can’t get rid of the guns, but we can try to think about who should not have a gun. The state laws are a patchwork and are very inconsistent in terms of how they operationalize the disqualifying criteria. In Illinois, for example, if you have been diagnosed with a mental illness, you’re disqualified for five years from buying a gun. In Maryland, if you’ve suffered from mental illness and have a history of violence and spent more than thirty consecutive days in a mental health facility, you’re disqualified.

When you think about the possibilities for reform, you have to think about the fact that there are state laws, federal laws and implementation policies.

The questions are do these laws even work and if they do, what’s the best way to define who is dangerous and who is not. There are laws that scoop everyone up and stigmatize people and drive them away from seeking services because they’re afraid that they might lose their [gun] rights and they vary throughout the country.

Some of that is out there is “crisis-driven law,” written and signed into law after a public event such as the Tucson shooting of Representative Gifford’s. And there are also gun restoration laws that give people with mental illness their right to own a firearm again after a period of time in some states, but there’s no guidance on how to do that right now.

NPH: Who should be participating in the webinar?

Jeffrey Swanson: Anyone who deals with this issue will find up-to-date information but specific groups I’d recommend it for include attorneys who are working with the public mental health systems, people in the protection and advocacy community for people with mental health issues and people who are concerned about the public health and safety goals and adverse consequences of these laws.

NPH: This issue seems particularly thorny.

Jeffrey Swanson: From my perspective I’d like to have far fewer guns in the hands of anybody. From a public health safety point of view if we have an opportunity to limit guns, that would be good. But we have to have realistic about approaches that take into account the constitutional landscape.

Legislation that keeps those with mental illness from having guns doesn’t reduce the homicide rate but could keep the mentally ill from committing crimes including homicide and suicide. If you could avert suicide by firearms, that’s huge and there would be a chance to really save lives and to get people engaged in treatment from which they could possibly recover.

We need model statutes based on evidence rather than painting with a broad brush of keeping guns from anyone that has ever been diagnosed with a mental illness.

>>Register for the Webinar. The webinar is free and open to all interested parties. Register here by 1 p.m. (EST) today.

This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF New Public Health blog.